From South Africa’s golden boy to the one that got away – Aiden Markram’s resurgent Test century against the West Indies shows he’s not done yet.

A well-executed cover drive can be one of two things. It can mitigate for a batter’s lack of runs, their eye-catching clinically executed pose going some way to excuse only 20 being added to the scoreboard – “yes but didn’t he look good?” Or it’s a universal indicator of class, separating the good from the best, the difference between a scratchy, fighting century and a fluent masterclass of an innings.

Aiden Markram’s Test match redemption innings at Centurion, full of elegantly poised shots and eye-catching cover-drives, fell into the latter. As he raised his bat to acknowledge the ovation he was given by his hometown crowd after reaching his century, the tears in his eyes could clearly be seen. He confirmed as much in his post-play interview: “I was fighting it a bit to be honest,” he said. “It meant quite a lot to me. Scoring a hundred on your home ground in front of your friends and family also seems to be more special. And there was a lot of relief going through me.”

“It’s been a strange journey and I’m just grateful that it worked out.”

Markram’s potential has been elusive for South Africa since he burst onto the Test match scene as a 22-year-old. Touted as somewhat of a saviour for a Proteas team declining on the Test match stage, his career as of yet has been one of unfulfilled promise, regardless of whether it was fair to expect so much of him in the first place.

Cruelly denied a fairytale century on debut in 2017 when he was run out on 97, he made no mistake second time round and reached his maiden Test hundred with a dismissive swat to the boundary. There was another in his next Test against Zimbabwe and by the time Markram had played ten Test matches he had reached 1,000 runs and averaged 55.55. Naturally aggressive but not reckless, stylish but not superficially so, at 23 Markram was regarded in some quarters as having the potential to challenge the then impenetrable ‘big-four’ and to captain South Africa in all formats.

His status among the Proteas was confirmed when, having just played two ODI matches, he stood in as captain for a five-match series at home against India in early 2018. The rest of the side he was in charge of had 803 caps between them. While that experiment didn’t go to plan, South Africa on the receiving end of a 5-1 thrashing and Markram averaging 21.17 in the series, there was scope for those outcomes to be chalked up to an over-eager team management thrusting enormous responsibility on a young player far too soon.

“Looking back… I don’t think I was the right person for the job,” Markram later reflected. “I forgot that when I had a bat in my hand my main job was to be a batsman. It was a blur out in the middle and the captaincy played too much on my mind.”

Still, with the captaincy off his shoulders and left once more solely to bat, Markram continued to flourish in the most challenging of environments. He scored two centuries during Australia’s infamous tour to South Africa in 2018. The first came amidst a barrage of abuse from the pre-Cape Town Australia side after he was the guilty party in running out AB de Villiers before he had faced a ball.

With the world seemingly at his feet in the longest format and well on his way to cementing his place in the fifty-over side, a slump in his performances began to take hold.

He did not pass 20 in any of his eight innings in Sri Lanka later on in 2018 and, when the runs became equally hard for him to find against India, he lashed out in anger after being dismissed for a duck. The resultant injury to his wrist kept him out of the remainder of that tour and despite being fit again for England at home at the end of 2019, a fractured finger ruled him out of the final three matches of the series.

Those three Tests were to be South Africa’s last for nearly a year as Covid put paid to most international cricket. When Sri Lanka toured South Africa 12 months later, Makram re-started his Test career with a fifty in the opening match. It was his first half-century in almost two years and while it came against an injury-hit Sri Lanka side, it was a positive sign that the second half of his career was beginning.

Another fifty and a hundred in Pakistan was more evidence that he had shaken off several of his previous demons. It went some way to alleviating concerns over his ability against spin and put to bed any short-term speculation that his spot as Elgar’s opening partner could be under threat.

But the second half of South Africa’s winter and the following home season obliterated any credit Markram may have had in the bank. After scoring a fifty in the first Test against the West Indies at St Lucia, he scored 0, 4, 13 and 1 in his next four innings and averaged 12.66 in the following three-Test series against India.

By the time South Africa returned from their series draw in New Zealand, he hadn’t passed fifty in 12 innings. Now more than thirty matches into his Test career, the excuses of Markram’s youth and inexperience could no longer underwrite his lack of runs. Being pushed down to first drop in New Zealand hadn’t achieved the desired result and for the amount South Africa had invested in their poster boy, he needed to deliver a return. “I’ve had a lot of tough conversations with him,” said Elgar before South Africa’s tour of New Zealand last year. “and [told him]: ‘You need to score runs for us.'”

Having opted to honour his IPL commitments rather than participate in a two-match Test series against Bangladesh, Markram arrived in the UK last summer in a last-chance saloon scenario. With scores of 16, 14 and six in three innings and now batting down at four, he found himself out of the side for the final match at The Oval. Three months later, he was also left out of South Africa’s marquee tour of Australia.

“I was heartsore not to be in Australia,” said Markram after his innings against the West Indies. “But I was told quite clearly as to the reason why I wasn’t on the tour. As batters, we need runs on the board and if you are not scoring runs in a team that wants to compete with the best in the world, your position should be under scrutiny.”

As it happens, the decision to drop Markram might have been significant for his rapid return to the Test fold against the West Indies. Not being part of South Africa’s decimation in Australia meant Markram’s stock was no worse than when he was left out in England. Compared to those who were in Australia, Markram once again offered the potential of what could be, rather than the dismal reality of what was for South Africa during that winter. In his own words – “It might have been a good thing.”

A new coach in Shukri Conrad and a new captain in Temba Bavuma spelt a recall for Markram to be part of South Africa’s new era. On turning back to Markram, Conrad said: “It felt like starting out on a clean slate.”

There are still plenty of questions for Markram to answer. His average at home (43.15) is problematically disproportionate to his average away (22.00). The quality of the West Indies attack is good but the highest Test cricket has to offer and, since 2018, he has yet to demonstrate a consistent ability to convert his fifties into centuries and score runs on a consistent basis. But, for now, he has reminded South Africa that talent and class are worth persevering with, and in Markram’s case, there is undoubtedly substance to back up his superficial prowess.